52 to 58 Commercial Road

2005-9 shop, office and residential building, 13- and 18-storey towers, on site of Baptist Chapel of 1763 and sugarhouse of 1773

From Gower's Walk to homes in Hessen
Contributed by Bryan Mawer on Nov. 21, 2016

On the east side of Gower's Walk on the corner of what is now Commercial Road (formerly part of Church Lane) stood a sugarhouse. It was run by John Walton and Johann George Wicke from around 1790, though it had probably been built by others some years earlier. Walton died in 1804 and Wicke continued the business through to his death in 1829. He instructed that the leasehold sugarhouse, dwelling house, warehouse and premises in his own occupation, and the adjoining dwelling house, cooperage, warehouses and premises, were to be sold. There was probably nothing remarkable about this group of buildings other than their height compared to the surrounding dwellings, but George Wicke is certainly worthy of comment.

A single man, sugar refining made him very wealthy indeed. His will not only shows his thought and generosity towards his employees and to many local schools and charities, but also that he left sums to a number of parishes in his native Hessen, Germany, for investment in land, the rents from which were to support the education of deserving children. Further sums of £5000 were left to each of four young family members in Hessen with which they built family homes. Unlike his refinery buildings, these beautiful dwellings are still in use and in wonderful condition. 1

  1. Mawer, Sugar Refiners & Sugarbakers, Wicke: www.mawer.clara.net/wicke.html 

52–58 Commercial Road
Contributed by Survey of London on Feb. 17, 2020

A vast pile of flats of 2005–9 occupies what had previously been two large sites, long ago in single ownership. Following the death of Samuel Gower in 1758, the local carpenter–architect Joel Johnson (1720–1799) acquired the freeholds and granted building leases mainly in the 1760s and ’70s.1

John Turquand (1724–1777) built a sugarhouse on the corner with Gower’s Walk (later No. 52) in 1771–2. He had previously been in partnership with his father René (1693–1775) in Wellclose Square, and his cousin, Paul, had a sugarhouse in Great Garden Street. This six-storey brick sugarhouse had a large rear yard with a workmen’s lodging room and a two-storey house on Gower’s Walk (later No. 60) with a canted back bay.2 Other sugar refiners succeeded – Gerard Goebel, Job Matthew and, from the 1790s to 1829, George Wicke, with John Walton until 1804. Charles Bowman, who had several other sugarhouses, extended the building in 1853.3

The size and value of the sugarhouse meant it was excluded from the sites compulsorily purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) for the extension of Commercial Road, causing a slight narrowing of the route at this point. The final sugar refiner, Conrad Wohlgemuth, complained to the MBW in 1870 about the difficulties the newly widened pavement caused loading and unloading by crane.4 Wohlgemuth departed in 1873, and the premises were taken by E. H. Hill & Co., biscuit bakers, who reduced the main building’s height in 1874 and made jam here.5

In 1897 the site, including that of the Gower’s Walk house, was leased by Joel Johnson’s great-grandchildren to Solomon and Phineas Cohen and Louis Weenen, Hanbury Street tobacco manufacturers, and redeveloped with a four-storey and basement L-shaped factory on a set-back building line that the LCC secured. This was built to designs by Robert P. Notley, architect, some-time District Surveyor for Bethnal Green.6 The building, with concrete floors on wrought- iron columns, was red-brick faced with triple gables to the front and large windows to open floors. It enabled Cohen, Weenen & Co. to consolidate production on the site, where they remained till 1939, by when the factory was known as Tower House and they were part of Godfrey Phillips. The top floor housed an airy cigar-making room, the second floor a store and tobacco-drying rooms, cigarette-making was on the first floor, and offices and storage on the ground floor. The basement was converted for a bomb shelter in 1941, but shortly afterwards bombing destroyed the top floor. This was replaced with an additional storey in 1951–2, to designs by Elsom and Pearman, architects. Thereafter, the building was used by the rag trade, mainly dress wholesalers, the last occupant being the menswear wholesaler Guide London.7 The upper floors of the building were converted to flats on a supposedly temporary basis in 1995, but the building was damaged by fire in 2003 and subsequently redeveloped (see below).8

The Church Lane site to the east (later 54–58 Commercial Road), also part of Joel Johnson’s take, was first developed in 1761-3 with a foursquare Baptist chapel. This was built for a General Baptist congregation with origins in the 1650s at Tower Hill, meeting by the 1750s in the Seventh Day Baptist Chapel in Mill Yard. Its pastor, John Brittain (_c._1710–1794), had started a building subscription in 1760. The chapel’s interior was plain but sported typical meeting-house accoutrements of pulpit, desks and galleries.9 Brittain was said to be an uneducated tradesman, ‘with sometimes more zeal than prudence’, but ‘his temper being fearless and his manner animated’, he acquired a considerable following, with 300 members by 1770.10 Nonconformism in the eighteenth century was fissiparous and disputatious. In 1770 the Church Lane chapel hosted a meeting of disaffected General Baptists who seceded to form the New Connexion of General Baptists, which sought a return to the Arminian tenets and absolute scriptural obedience of the General Baptists’ earlier years. Brittain was among the founders, but the leading spirit was Dan Taylor (1738–1816), a pastor based in Halifax who brought the evangelising spirit of his Wesleyan upbringing to the new Baptist sect and to Whitechapel in 1785 when he became assistant to the elderly and ailing Brittain. The congregation had declined, as had the New Connexion in London. Under Taylor it revived and in 1791 a ‘commodious baptistry’ was added ‘at considerable expense’.11

Brittain left his lease to his nephew, William Shenston, and great-nephew, John Brittain Shenston, later also a General Baptist minister.12 Taylor made the chapel the centre of his energetic activities, which included peripatetic preaching, establishing new, and reviving old, congregations, the foundation of the General Baptist Academy, of which he was first tutor, in 1797, and publication of the General Baptist Magazine in 1798–1800. At Church Lane, Sunday schools and a Friendly Society for Visiting the Sick were established. John Deodatus Gregory Pike (1784–1854) launched a career as a Baptist minister here in 1807–10.13

Following the creation of the General Baptist Union in 1812 and Taylor’s death, the New Connexion gradually lost its identity, and the Church Lane Chapel had ceased to be active by 1821. Its ownership had returned to the freeholder, George Waller, one of Joel Johnson’s sons-in-law. The chapel played host thereafter to an assortment of Nonconformist congregations. It was the Ebenezer Chapel by 1830, part of the seamen’s mission in 1831–4 under George Charles ‘Boatswain’ Smith, who was succeeded by another disputatious Evangelical, Thomas S. Corne (author of The Finger of God). In 1845–6 it was the ‘Scotch Church’, under the Scots Congregationalist Rev. Robert Ferguson who was succeeded by Joseph Cartwright (1783–1861) until the chapel finally closed in 1858–9.14

Brittain’s lease included land behind the chapel, running south for nearly 300ft, which enabled the development of a burial ground. This was known as Brittain’s burial ground and was intended for Baptists, probably not exclusively General Baptists as it was Thomas Davis, some-time pastor of both the Great Alie Street Zoar Chapel and the Petticoat Lane Baptist Chapel, who was the first to be interred in 1763, following his death from a piece of falling masonry. It ceased to be exclusively a dissenters’ burial ground by the 1780s, and became attractive to anyone seeking a burial cheaper than those provided in the parish churchyard.15

By 1821 the burial ground had expanded eastwards to other ground held by the Shenstons, a measure of the overcrowding affecting urban burials, confirmed by archaeologists who found coffins stacked up to seven high in 2007. The place was apparently in the hands of William Spiers, an undertaker who occupied the house next but one east of the chapel, with a sawpit in his yard.16

The ecumenical character of this burial ground attracted the press in the 1820s when baffled interest was taken in the funeral of a Lascar sailor and brawls at ‘Irish’ funerals were reported in comic detail. The ground also attracted the Resurrection men. Several bodies, some only just buried, were found in sacks around Back Church Lane, one near the ground’s rear entrance. This no doubt accounts for notices warning visitors to ‘Beware of spring guns’, devices for deterring body snatchers.17 In 1833 the burial ground and Spiers’ premises were taken over by Samuel Sheen (1796–1865), another undertaker, on a forty-year lease. Overcrowding and the now better-understood implications for the health of those living around the dead soon received attention. George Alfred Walker, a surgeon, found Sheen’s ground no better or worse than average: ‘The proprietor of this ground … has planted it with trees and shrubs, which are sufficiently attractive, but the ground is saturated with human putrescence’.18 Despite the Metropolitan Burial Act of 1852, closure was resisted until 1854. After an unsuccessful stint running a pub in Norwood, Sheen and his son continued as undertakers in Church Lane until 1861.19

The abandoned burial ground was taken over in 1861 by George and William Blackman, coopers, who already had extensive premises in Gower’s Walk and Rupert Street, and who had occupied the former chapel since about 1859. They formed a cooperage with sheds around a yard, which use continued until 1889. The site reverted to Joel Johnson’s descendants, but the LCC refused a development scheme in 1891 on account of past burial-ground use.20

The chapel site (Nos 54–58) was redeveloped in 1895–6 in a speculation by T. M. Fairclough, cartage contractors of nearby Christian Street. Their robust utilitarian steel-framed warehouse had four storeys in white brick with full- height windows.21 It was leased in 1898 to Joseph Tetley & Sons, tea merchants, for packing and storage. They remained until 1928, when the Co- operative Wholesale Society moved in, using the building first as tailoring workshops and after the war as a warehouse for tyres and motor parts. The warehouse later fell to multiple occupation, mainly by clothing wholesalers. In 2000 permission was secured for a conversion to flats, with two new floors and a rear extension. This had not been carried out when the building was gutted by fire in November 2003.

The cobble-paved site of the burial ground was accessed by a cartway through the factory and used by Fairclough’s for cart storage by 1896. They had added a smith’s shop and two-storey wheelwright’s shop by the First World War. In 1950 Fairclough’s, which specialised in meat transport by the 1920s, was nationalised by the British Transport Commission and the yard was used by British Road Services (Meat Haulage) Ltd.22

Plans afoot from the late 1980s to redevelop at No 52–58 finally matured in 2005, as planning presumptions against tall buildings eroded – the site immediately east of Back Church Lane had been redeveloped with an eleven- storey Post Office computer centre in the 1960s. A mixed scheme was approved, extending to land on Back Church Lane behind No. 60, and a triangular site on the west side of Gower’s Walk, behind the Gunmakers’ proof house. Seen through by 2009, this development comprised towers of thirteen and seventeen storeys, straddling a three- to five-storey podium. Plots on either side of Gower’s Walk (Nos 59 and 63) were used for most of the required thirty-eight ‘affordable’ flats, leaving a small strip of landscaped green space. The towers were for flats, incorporating live/work units, offices, a health club and a café on the lower four floors. The clients were Business Environment Group Ltd and Rickbrook Ltd for the main building, and Solon Co-operative Housing Services and Network Housing Group for the affordable housing, the architects Rivington Street Studio Architecture. The design is blocky and bland, the towers clad in beige tile with small windows, many in narrow horizontal strips, the podium heavily glazed with silvery composite panelling which extends to piers on the pavement supporting the fronts of the towers and rectangular pods atop the towers. The Gower’s Walk ‘affordable’ blocks, of five and six storeys, are resolutely plain, faced in shades of light-grey render.

By 2007 the main building was in the hands of the Jersey-registered Rocquefort Properties Ltd, part of a property empire controlled by David Kennedy, his family and associates, that includes Formation Design and Build which financed the project.23

As the main building was nearing completion in 2009 permission was given for repurposing forty-one of the ninety-eight flats (floors four to ten of the taller tower) as an apart-hotel of serviced flats, the justification being increasing demand for hotel space in the ‘City Fringe’ with an eye on the 2012 Olympics. As many other towers rose up nearby, the shorter tower was raised in 2016 with an extra floor of seven flats added to its silver pod. A further extension to provide three further flats in glazed rooftop additions to each tower was granted on appeal in 2019.24

  1. Howard Colvin,_ A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1660–1840, _3rd edn, 1995,  p. 548: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/WNH/1/9/1–2 

  2. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Land Tax Returns (LT): Daily Advertiser, 16 Sept 1777: W. Minet and W. C. Waller (eds), Publications of the Huguenot Society, vol.11: Registers of the Church of La Patente, Spitalfields, 1898, pp.98 et __passim: Ancestry: Ordnance Survey (OS) map 1873: THLHLA, B/ENN/1/1 

  3. LMA, LT; District Surveyors Returns (DSR): Post Office Directories (POD): Census: Ancestry 

  4. East London Observer, 11 June 1864, p.3: Metropolitan Board of Works Minutes (MBW Mins), 17 June 1870, p. 647 

  5. POD: OS 1873: THLHLA, B/ENN/1/1 

  6. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/17/009385; CLC/L/GI/G/001/MS05231: DSR: A. Felstead, J. Franklin, L. Pinfield (eds), Directory of British Architects__, 1834–1900, 1993, pp.667–8: THLHLA, L/THL/D/2/30/39: London County Council Minutes (LCC Mins), 23 July 1895, p.737; 19 Nov 1895, pp.1082–3; 1 Dec 1896, p.1351 

  7. The National Archives (TNA), IR58/84809/2641: THLHLA, P022029; P02323; L/THL/D/2/30/39: LMA, GLC/AR/BR/17/009385: POD: Tower Hamlets planning applications online (THP) 

  8. www.guidelondon.co.uk/aboutus: THP: surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/996/detail/#www.stgitehistory.org.uk/media/commercialroad1921.h tml#4 

  9. Adam Taylor, The History of the English General Baptists, in Two Parts: Part the First, The English General Baptists of the Seventeenth Century, 1818, p. 169: Part the Second, The New Connexion of General Baptists, 1818, pp. 80–90: Adam Taylor, Memoirs of the Rev. Dan Taylor, late Pastor of the General Baptist Church, Whitechapel, London, 1820, p. 251 

  10. Taylor, Memoirs, p. 207: Taylor, _History: Part Second, _pp. 90–1 

  11. Taylor, History, Part Second, pp. 134–43,191–2,202,205–7,319: Frank W. Rinaldi, The Tribe of Dan: The New Connexion of General Baptists, 1770–1891: A Study on the Transition from Revival Movement to Established Denomination, 2009, pp. 2–4,8–10: Taylor, Memoirs, pp. 125–33,169–70 

  12. TNA, PROB11/1250/189: THLHLA, P/WNH/1/9/2 

  13. Taylor, History, Part Second, pp. 430–2: Taylor, Memoirs, pp. 177,215–51:Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) sub Pike 

  14. THLHLA, P/WNH/1/9/1: TNA, PROB11/1669/204: ODNB sub Smith: Thomas Corne, An Evangelical Selection of Hymns, 1834: Morning Post, 18 Feb 1836, p.3: Morning Advertiser, 29 Oct 1836, p.1: Taunton Courier, 19 Sept 1838, p.8: LMA, CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/517/1090391: POD: Census: Ancestry 

  15. THLHLA, P/WNH/1/9/2: TNA, PROB11/1669/204: Walter Wilson, The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches and Meeting Houses, vol. 4, 1814, p. 426: Michael Henderson, Adrian Miles and Don Walker (eds), ‘He Being Dead Yet Speaketh’: Excavations at three post-medieval burial grounds in Tower Hamlets, east London, 2004–10, Museum of London Archaeology Monograph 64, 2013, pp. 53,65–6,71–2: Ancestry 

  16. Henderson, pp.12–14,60–6: THLHLA, P/WNH/1/9/2 

  17. Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.93/16, Jan 1823, p. 80: John Bull, 24 July 1825, p.2: Morning Advertiser, 24 Sept 1850, p.4: Star (London), 1809, p.4: Henderson, p.55: East London Observer, 26 Sept 1914, p.2 

  18. G. A. Walker, The Grave Yards of London, 1841, p.14 

  19. Henderson, pp. 59,65: POD: Morning Advertiser, 8 May 1856, p.7: Morning Post, 9 May 1856, p.7 

  20. POD: MBW Mins, 27 May 1870, pp.592–3; 23 April 1875, p.497: THLHLA, L/THL/D/2/30/39: LCC Mins, 10 Feb 1891, p.165 

  21. DSR: THLHLA, L/THL/D/3/4/7: LCC Mins, 11 Feb 1896, p.137 

  22. W. R. Macdonnell, ‘A Study of the Variation and Correlation of the Human Skull, with Special Reference to English Crania’, Biometrika, vol. 3, 1904, pp. 191–243 (p. 197): Isabella (Mrs Basil) Holmes, The London Burial Grounds: Notes on their History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 1896, p.297: TNA, IR58/84809/2643: THP: Charlie Walker, An History of Road Transport, 2009, p. 110: Goad insurance maps: Commercial Motor, 8 May 1953, p. 25: www.glias.org.uk/news/254news.html#Ewww.glias.org.uk/news/255news.html 

  23. London Stock Exchange Aggregated Regulatory News Service (ARNS), 22 Aug 2007 via Nexis: www.investegate.co.uk/articlePrint.aspx?id=200611301259300071 No ffshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/12154996 

  24. THP: www.skyscrapernews.com/buildings.php?id=5425dab.formationgroupplc.com/project/ibis- hotel-commercial-street/ 

Rear of 52-58 Commercial Road, c.2002
Contributed by Daniel Cartwright

Fire at 54 Commercial Road, November 2003, from rear
Contributed by Daniel Cartwright

52-58 Commercial Road, c. 2002
Contributed by Daniel Cartwright

Rear of fire damaged building at 52 Commercial Road
Contributed by danny

Gowers Walk and the Johnny Walker Warehouse
Contributed by danny

Gowers Walk and the Johnny Walker Warehouse
Contributed by danny

52–58 Commercial Road from the north in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

52–58 Commercial Road from the north-east in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall